Pretending not to see coronavirus cases won’t make them go away

The U.S. stumbled badly at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when it came to testing. So few test kits were available, officials couldn’t keep up with the infections emerging across their communities. And with no way of knowing where or how much the virus was spreading in their states, governors were forced to take drastic measures, most notably ordering people to stay home lest individuals with the disease overwhelm the healthcare system and die in numbers not seen since the 1918 flu pandemic.

The devastating consequences of those decisions will reverberate for years. And everyone agrees that we cannot afford to return to such a dark time. But as COVID-19 roars back in record numbers, that’s starting to seem like a very real, and terrifying, possibility.

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So it’s bewildering that the federal government would even consider pulling funding and support for 13 federally financed COVID-19 testing sites in five states next week. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said Wednesday that it was planning to do just that at the end of June. Have we already forgotten the initial testing debacle after just a few months?

The news broke about the testing sites even as a resurgence of coronavirus cases has raised alarms across the Southern and Western United States. On Wednesday, the U.S. recorded the third-highest total of new COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began, and several states, including California, are seeing record levels of new infections. Things are particularly grim in Arizona (which hosted a rally for President Trump on Tuesday in which hundreds of unmasked people sat side by side yelling support), Florida and Texas.

Seven of the testing sites scheduled to lose funding are in Texas, which is experiencing what Gov. Greg Abbott — no coronavirus alarmist — termed a “massive outbreak of COVID-19.” Things have gotten so bad there, Abbott urged Texans to stay home. Two of those seven sites are in Houston, where so many people infected with COVID-19 have been hospitalized that the city has almost no intensive care beds available for others who desperately need care. They rest of the testing sites are in Colorado, Illinois, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

It should be obvious that now is not the time to hamper testing in any way, no matter what Trump thinks about it. At a campaign rally in Tusla, Okla., last Saturday, Trump said that he had asked aides to slow down testing to keep cases low. Later his handlers explained it as a joke, but Trump contradicted them, saying “I don’t kid” — and later continued to voice his displeasure with testing, tweeting: “Cases up only because of our big number testing. Mortality rate way down!!!”

Well, no, cases don’t go up just because you confirm their existence with a test. Not looking for cases just makes it harder for public health officials to target resources. In fact, not testing people is a great way to ensure many more cases by leaving infectious but undiagnosed people out in their communities.

Trump is not wrong about the nation’s mortality continuing to decline, but that’s not dispositive. It can take several weeks for an infection to result in death, so a surge in confirmed cases this month could mean a surge in deaths next month.

Granted, the decision to pull funding for the testing sites doesn’t seem to be the result of the president’s recent complaints. Federal officials have been planning for a while to shift more of the cost of testing onto states and private parties. Nevertheless, it highlights how the Trump administration has continually failed to lead during the pandemic, leaving states largely on their own to protect their residents.

What the federal and state governments should be doing is investing millions, if not billions into testing, tracing and isolation programs, while also putting into place a national pandemic strategy that moves away from trying to stamp out COVID-19 outbreaks after they flare up and instead seeks to prevent individual infections from blossoming into large-scale outbreaks in the first place. That way we might be able to get ahead of the virus until there’s a vaccine and better treatments widely available.

Yes, it will be expensive, but continuing to lose the fight against COVID-19 costs orders of magnitude more in economic activity and in lives. More than 45 million Americans have lost their jobs during the pandemic and more than 120,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. And we know testing pays off. The countries that have contained their own coronavirus outbreaks, such as New Zealand, Iceland and South Korea, were aggressive and strategic on testing, tracing and isolating in a way in which the U.S. has not been.

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Indeed, instead of pulling back on testing, the nation needs to double down on it. This is how we beat the “invisible enemy,” of which the president speaks. Not by covering our eyes and pretending it isn’t there.

— Los Angeles Times

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